List of wealthiest historical figures
The list of the wealthiest historical figures is an attempt to gather and compare the net-worth and fortunes of historical figures against one another; it does not include living billionaires. Inflation and other factors devalue currency over time; economies of different regions over time periods; and economies' produced goods, commodities, and services over time. These fluctuations increase difficulty when accurately assessing and comparing fortunes from different decades, centuries, and especially millennia for the economy of any given State or region. Also, because several individuals and families never had their financial records revealed publicly and there are no contemporary estimates of their net-worth, several people could be omitted due to a lack of citable estimates of their net-worth. Some estimates of personal wealth are based upon ownership of capital and stock in a company or many companies, the value of which is always changing.
This list includes both nominal and real wealth. The nominal value of a person's net-worth reflects the price in that person's time without adjustments for inflation or other factors. The real value of a person's net-worth reflects an attempt to adjust a fortune's worth against economic factors that usually devalue a currency and thus reflect the buying power of that wealth as a stable figure comparable across historical periods.
- 1 Wealth in Europe
- 2 Wealth in the Americas
- 3 Wealth in Asia
- 4 Antique historical figures and legendary wealth
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Wealth in Europe
Nathan Mayer Rothschild
From 1809 Rothschild began to deal in gold bullion, and developed this as a cornerstone of his business. From 1811 on, in negotiation with Commissary-General John Charles Herries, he undertook to transfer money to pay Wellington's troops, on campaign in Portugal and Spain against Napoleon, and later to make subsidy payments to British allies when these organized new troops after Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign.
His four brothers helped co-ordinate activities across the continent, and the family developed a network of agents, shippers and couriers to transport gold—and information—across Europe. This private intelligence service enabled Nathan to receive in London the news of Wellington's victory at the Battle of Waterloo a full day ahead of the government's official messengers. He is famously quoted as saying "Buy when there’s blood in the streets", though the original quote is believed to have appended "even if the blood is your own".
In 1818 he arranged a 5 million pound loan to the Prussian government and the issuing of bonds for government loans formed a mainstay of his bank’s business. He gained a position of such power in the City of London that by 1825–6 he was able to supply enough coin to the Bank of England to enable it to avert a liquidity crisis.
Nathan Meyer Rothschild was known for his role in the abolition of the slave trade through his part-financing of the 20 million pound British government buyout of the plantation industry's slaves. However in 2009 it was claimed that as part of banking dealings with a slave owner, Rothschild used slaves as collateral. The Rothschild bank denied the claims and said that Nathan Mayer Rothschild had been a prominent civil liberties campaigner with many like-minded associates and "against this background, these allegations appear inconsistent and misrepresent the ethos of the man and his business".
He set up his London business, N. M. Rothschild and Sons at New Court in St Swithin's Lane, City of London, where it trades today. He also purchased a country house at Gunnersbury Park near Acton in western London.
Wealth in the Americas
American entrepreneurs have often amassed the largest nominal fortunes in history. However, due to the effect of inflation, many of these fortunes have actually accumulated smaller real value than some historical figures.
Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which was the most extensive integrated iron and steel operations in the United States; in 1901, Carnegie sold his company for US$480 million to JP Morgan, who then merged his company into U.S. Steel. Capitalized at US$1.4 billion at the time, U.S. Steel was the first billion dollar company in the world. In his final years, Carnegie's net worth was US$475 million, but by the time of his death in 1919 he had donated most of his wealth to charities and other philanthropic endeavors and had only US$30 million left to his personal fortune. Carnegie's hundreds of millions accounted for about 0.60% of the U.S. annual GDP and has a real value estimated at about US$75 billion adjusted for the late 2000s.
John D. Rockefeller
On September 29, 1916, John D. Rockefeller became the first person to ever reach a nominal personal fortune of US$1 billion. Rockefeller amassed his fortune from the Standard Oil company, of which he was a founder, chairman and major shareholder. By the time of his death in 1937, estimates place his net worth in the range of US$392 billion to US$663.4 billion in adjusted dollars for the late 2000s. When considering the real value of his wealth, Rockefeller is widely held to be the wealthiest American in history.
J. P. Morgan
J. P. Morgan inherited wealth from his father, a leading businessman of his time. He made his own fortune in the industrialist era of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie by consolidating financial interests. Teaming with Thomas Edison, Morgan backed projects leading to the electrification of New York City using direct current (DC), and by 1892 he had most parts of Edison's business interests and numerous other companies consolidated in one conglomerate, General Electric. That period also saw the growth of George Westinghouse's Westinghouse Electric, which had based its business on the more efficient alternating current (AC) technology. Morgan tried repeatedly to consolidate Westinghouse Electric into his growing electricity monopoly. The fact that General Electric controlled patents such as electric lighting and Westinghouse held patents such as Tesla's AC induction motor led to several patent battles. In 1896 Westinghouse signed a patent sharing agreement with J. P. Morgan and General Electric, ending the costly legal battles between the two companies and enabling J. P. Morgan's General Electric to grow rapidly. Morgan branched out into other interests, eying steel and the Carnegie empire. His portfolio grew to include railroads, steel, and mines, but the most valuable asset was the integrated Carnegie Steel. Morgan engineered a buyout and formed U.S. Steel as a result.
Henry Ford was an American automotive engineer, entrepreneur, and founder of the Ford Motor Company. Through his designing of the Model T Ford and employing the assembly line means of rapid production, he was able to lower the base price of his product in order to reach a wider market. As production increased, Ford further reduced prices and increased salaries to reduce worker turnover. This resulted in a rapid increase in output, with Ford production rising from roughly 18,000 cars in 1909 to over 1 million cars in 1920. Despite Ford stating that his focus was increasing Ford Motor Company's benefit to society and to its employees, even at one point being sued by the Dodge brothers based on this premise, his company was massively profitable. His highest earnings were recorded at age 57 and he died at the age of 83 in 1947 at a net worth of US$188.1 billion (inflation-adjusted value in 2008 dollars).
John Jacob Astor
After immigrating to the United States, John Jacob Astor began trading in furs and later in real estate and opium. By 1801 his nominal wealth was some US$250,000, and by the time of his death in 1848 his fortune had grown to US$20 million, making him America's first multi-millionaire.
Don Simón Iturri Patiño
Don Simón Iturri Patiño born in 1862 (died 1947), was a Bolivian industrialist. He took over tin mines in Bolivia and smelters in England and Germany, and by the 1940s he controlled the international tin market. During World War II, Patiño was believed to be one of the five wealthiest people in the world.
Wealth in Asia
Heshen or Hešen (Chinese: 和珅; pinyin: Héshēn; Wade–Giles: Ho-shen, 1746 - February 22, 1799) was a Manchu official of the Qing Dynasty, a favourite of the Qianlong Emperor, and one of the wealthiest people in modern Chinese history. Upon his death in 1799, his total property was estimated at around 1.100 billion taels (~1.32 billion troy ounces) of silver. Heshen's wealth, which was the equivalent to the imperial revenue of the Qing government for 15 years, included the following:
3,000 rooms in his estates and mansions, 8,000 acres (32 km²) of land, 42 bank branches, 75 pawnbroker branches, 60,000 taels of copper alloyed gold, 100 large ingots of pure gold, (1,000 taels each), 56,600 medium silver ingots, (100 taels each), 9,000,000 small silver ingots, (10 taels each), 58,000 livres/pounds of foreign currency, 1,500,000 copper coins, 600 lb of top-quality Jilin ginseng, 1,200 jade charms, 230 pearl bracelets (each pearl comparable in size to large cherries or longans), 10 large pearls (each the size of apricots), 10 large ruby crystals, 40 large sapphire crystals, 40 tablefuls of solid-silver eating utensils, (serves 10 per table), 40 tablefuls of solid-gold eating utensils, (serves 10 per table), 11 coral rocks (each over a metre in height), 14,300 bolts of fine silk, 20,000 sheets of fine sheep-fur wool, 550 fox hides, 850 raccoon dog hides, 56,000 sheep and cattle hides of varying thickness, 7,000 sets of fine clothing (for all four seasons), 361,000 bronze and tin vases and vessels, 100,000 porcelain vessels made by famous masters, 24 highly decorative solid-gold beds (each with eight different types of inlaid gemstones), 460 top-quality European clocks, 606 servants, 600 women in his harem.
Mir Osman Ali Khan
Of the seven Nizams who governed Hyderabad State, India from 1720 to 1948, the richest was the last, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who was regarded as the wealthiest person on Earth – his portrait was on the cover of Time magazine in 1937. He had his own mint, printing his own currency, the Hyderabadi rupee, and a vast private treasury. Its coffers were said to contain £100m in gold and silver bullion, and a further £400m of jewels. Among them was the Jacob Diamond, valued at some £100m (in 2008), and used by the Nizam as a paperweight.
Antique historical figures and legendary wealth
As records are lost and fortunes often never fully tallied, sometimes only vague stories and grandiose legends are left as witnesses to the treasures held by individuals past. These tales are often believed to be fanciful or exaggerated, and some have even been discredited with new discoveries and evidence. Nevertheless, these fortunes were likely impressive, having remained in popular consciousness through the ages, even if only as legend.
Croesus was a king of Lydia in the 6th century BC. His name in Greek and Persian cultures became a synonym for a wealthy man. In English, expressions such as "rich as Croesus" are used to indicate great wealth.
Marcus Licinius Crassus
One of the leading politicians of Rome in his day, Marcus Licinius Crassus, along with Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, comprised the First Triumvirate. Crassus, born into a wealthy political family, inherited a fortune of 7 million sesterces after the death of his father in 87 BC. Political rivalries eventually led to the state seizing Crassus's wealth. After several years of exile, Lucius Cornelius Sulla regained a position of power in Rome, and Crassus as a loyal and valued supporter found himself in charge of Sulla's proscriptions. In such a position, Crassus was able to rebuild his family fortune by seizing the property of executed criminals for himself, and there is evidence that shows Crassus sometimes executed innocent individuals simply to obtain their vast estates and wealth.
Crassus also expanded his wealth by trading in slaves and by purchasing whole neighborhoods of Rome as they burned, for drastically less than market value. At the time, Rome had no formal way of battling fires and they usually were left to burn themselves out, which meant several estates and fortunes were lost in the process. Crassus employed a firefighting brigade of some five hundred men and, after he negotiated the purchase of the burning building and the surrounding estates in danger, the brigade would collapse the home that was ablaze to extinguish the fire before it could spread.
Crassus was known in Rome as Dives, meaning "The Rich". Plutarch describes how Crassus's relationship with a Vestal Virgin came into question at one point, for which the punishment was death. Crassus was acquitted after claiming that he merely courted the woman in an attempt to acquire her villa at below market cost and that carnal lusts never came to mind. Wishing to gain both political and military fame during the slave uprisings led by Spartacus, Crassus offered to equip, train, and lead two new legions of soldiers into battle at his own expense in an impressive show of personal wealth. In 53 BC, while again attempting military fame, Crassus was killed in the Battle of Carrhae during a parley with a Parthian general. Lucius Cassius Dio tells that he thereupon had molten gold poured into his mouth to satiate his unyielding thirst for wealth.
It is believed that Crassus expanded his personal fortune to a remarkable 170 million sesterces, while Pliny the Elder surmised his fortune to be valued even higher, at 200 million sesterces. This would place Crassus's net worth equal to the total annual budget of the Roman treasury. He has been considered the wealthiest person in history, though this claim has been disputed. With increasing knowledge of Ancient Roman monetary values, most modern experts believe his wealth to be far less than contemporary historians claimed.
Tiberius Claudius Hipparchus
Tiberius Claudius Hipparchus (~30–95 A.D.), a Greek of Athenian descent. He was considered one of the wealthiest in the Roman Empire at the time, with a fortune of perhaps a hundred million sesterces. He was the father of Claudius Atticus (suffect consul 132) and grandfather of Herodes Atticus.
Many of Israel's ancient books (that comprise the Hebrew Bible), such as the book of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, state that through tribute money, heavy taxation, commerce and trading King Solomon, who lived around 970–931 BC, held a fortune that dwarfed that of any person who lived before him, making him the wealthiest person in the world at his time. The Books of Kings states Solomon collected 666 talents of gold each year (1 Kings 10:14), a huge amount of money for a small nation like Israel. Religious text make many statements on Solomon's wealth such as all of the goblets and household articles in his palace were pure gold, that his throne was greatly expansive, and that his immense wealth in gold caused silver to be devalued.
Historical evidence for this wealth varies. Some historians view the principal points of the biblical tradition of Solomon as generally trustworthy with Kenneth Kitchen's view that Solomon ruled over a comparatively wealthy "mini-empire", calculating that over 30 years, such a kingdom might have accumulated up to 500 tons of gold (roughly US$19.3 billion as of 2014). According to Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, authors of The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, at the time of the kingdoms of David and Solomon, Jerusalem was populated by only a few hundred residents or less, which is insufficient for an empire stretching from the Euphrates to Eilath. They state that archaeological evidence suggests that the kingdom of Israel at the time of Solomon was little more than a small city state, and so it is implausible that Solomon received tribute as large as 666 talents of gold per year.
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